Standing on the stage of the Manchester Arena, playing to 20,000 of your hometown’s loudest music fans, is all very well when you’ve had a major label ploughing in cash and pulling the strings to get you there. It’s quite another thing when you’ve got there entirely on your own, self-releasing your albums and building a following by jumping in a van and playing to as many people as will listen for ten years. When you do it The Slow Readers Club way.
“It was a baptism of fire for us,” singer Aaron Starkie says of the band’s string of UK Academy and arena shows in 2016. “It taught us our craft on the bigger stages. I’d always been conscious seeing some bands play like they’re selling out Wembley, playing smaller venues. It felt a bit artificial to me. We were just going, in our heads, “one day I’m going to have to do this on the big stage”. We know what we’re doing on those bigger stages now.”
Okay so The Slow Readers Club – the fastest rising anthemic electro noir rockers in the UK - might have only played those arena shows as support for James, but through blinding talent and hard graft they’re well on the way to headline status. They’ve sold out the 2000 capacity Albert Hall in Manchester as well as the Garage in London and in their scintillating third album ‘Build A Tower’ they’ve got the breakthrough record of the year under their belts. “We’re really proud of the record as we’ve learned a lot since our last, self-released, album,” Aaron says. “’Build A Tower’ feels like a big step up.”
The Slow Readers Club rose from the ashes of Omerta, a Lamacq-tipped Manchester act who released a string of singles in the ‘00s before fizzling out in 2007. Aaron and bassist James Ryan weren’t done poring over rock’s small-print just yet, though; together they branched off to form TSRC, bringing a good swathe of Omerta’s fanbase along for the ride. “James and I just carried on going into the practice room, basically,” Aaron recalls. “Then Kurt [Starkie, Aaron’s guitarist brother] came along to take it in a different direction and try out some things. So we were able to reignite people.”
Recruiting Kurt’s friend David Whitworth on drums, The Slow Readers Club were quick to read Britain’s musical mood. The noughties guitar rock explosion was fading to a flicker; there was an appetite for something darker, weightier. “I liked the idea of not being a straight guitar band and bringing some electronics in, with something to say,” Aaron says. “I try to articulate things that people feel but don’t always express. You can tell that in the room when we’re performing, and when we’ve spoken to fans afterwards, it’s a cathartic experience.”
They could also see that their future was in their own hands. Local heroes The Courteeners were busy building a stadium-level following with minimal hype or radio play, relying on solid, relentless touring to mass their army. Membership of The Slow Readers Club would grow in much the same way. They took to social media, designed their own sleeves, self-released singles, hassled promoters and hit the road as hard as they could. The club grew strong, the venues grew bigger, so they self-released two albums of electro-rock enormity, brimming with ambition and calamity.
‘Sirens’, the lustrous noir pop first single from their self-titled 2011 debut, channeling the likes of Interpol, Editors and Joy Division, set the band’s deliciously desperate tone. “Tear out my eyes, take away the madness/Lately I think I’m going crazy”, Aaron sang between wolf howls and lines refuting religion, both Lear and Curtis at once, “I’ve had enough, someday it’s got to stop”. Elsewhere, dolorous, string-drenched chamber rock beauties like ‘Block Out The Sun’ glimmered with febrile passions and ‘Feet On Fire’ bristled with stalker paranoia and arena potential. “It’s not quite what we hoped for in terms of production,” Aaron argues, “but song-wise it still stands up. They’re tracks that are well loved live. We’ve got a fondness for that record.”
By the time they recorded 2015’s second album ‘Cavalcade’ they’d built a fanbase and honed their stagecraft enough to release a live album (2014’s ‘Live At Central Library’), and the album strived for grander things. They drew elements of Alt-J, The xx, The Maccabees and Depeche Mode into a bolder, more varied and confident sound, and Aaron’s lyrics became a sombre future-rock poetry, a stark catalogue of internal struggle. “I am broken, I am seasick… I am solemn verse” he sang on ‘I Saw A Ghost’; “A solitary figure standing lonely in the dark, I’ll always be” he confessed on the neo-soul ‘Don’t Mind’.
From such artful anguish, history teaches us, greatness grows. So it proved for The Slow Readers Club. They began selling out shows across the country, ramming festival tents at Tramlines, Far Out and Ramsbottom Festival and garnering rabid debate over their latest singles on XFM and Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable. Word reached the ears of James’ Jim Glennie; an arena tour support slot catapulted the band to their own theatre headline shows and the major festivals – they made morbid mincemeat of tents at Isle Of Wight, Festival No.6, Kendal Calling (“that was proper packed”) and Victorious (“amazing”). They sold out Manchester’s Ritz two months in advance and took Hackney Oslo and Dublin Whelan’s by storm. The Slow Reader’s Club were fast becoming a decade-long overnight sensation.
The circling labels had no choice but to pounce. Liverpool’s Modern Sky label won the race for TSRC’s signatures and are set to release third album ‘Build A Tower’, constructed over a year of evening and weekend sessions at Manchester’s Edwin St Studios. It’s an evocative slab of masterful mood-pop where space and melody collide like satellite junk into the International Space Station, and a sonic shaft of hope in our troubled Trumpian times.
“We’re living in a world where we’re faced with things like Brexit and Trump and the world’s becoming more polarised, I couldn’t put another record in the world that was, lyrically, more moaning about myself,” Aaron explains. “It needed to be something that was more positive and hopeful. When Thatcher was in power in the 80s, pop was really powerful - Culture Club and Wham!, it was much more about escapism. ‘Build A Tower’ isn’t happy-clappy music, but it has a broader and happier message than what we’ve broadcast previously. It’s important for me as a lyric writer to explore new territory and not regurgitate what I’ve done previously.”
Between euphoric synthrock love songs like ‘You Opened Up My Heart’ (“where there’s love there’s always hope”) and ‘Never Said I Was The Only One’ (“here we are, through the looking glass”), though, Aaron’s demons can’t help but interrupt. ‘Lost In Your Gaze’ and ‘Supernatural’ are songs of unhealthy romantic obsession, ‘Lives Never Known’ frets over the alternative lives we might all be living if we’d turned different corners – “the multiple versions of yourself that there might have been by making different career choices or partner choices or lifestyle choices, drink and drugs and that kind of thing”. And the cavern disco throb of ‘Lunatic’ hints at personal disintegration: “once again I’m drawn towards oblivion,” Aaron sings, dreaming of chaining himself to the floor in a tower of isolation a hundred storeys high.
“It’s a pessimistic view of the world, not feeling in control of your own destiny or the country’s destiny, feeling at odds with the world around you,” he says. “Mental health is a very important subject these days, the amount of time we spend on smartphones and how that’s distorting people’s psychology and the view of themselves. It’s an area that I’ve not really got a full handle on yet. Keeping my sanity is something I try to consciously do, or keeping my control of my mental well-being.”
Elsewhere, ‘On The TV’ tackles the world’s political swing to the far right, and religion’s sway over global leaders, head on. “I’m an atheist, that’s my own personal belief,” Aaron says. “I think it’s interesting to see how much of a part religion plays into American politics.” The lyrics read like a frightened child huddled with his family in a metaphorical bunker: “On the TV the world is on fire, we’ve all gone insane,” Aaron sings, “tell me father, tell me how to play dead, hold me mother, tell me I am safe”. It sounds like you think the end is nigh. “I suspect the end probably isn’t nigh. When I wrote that Trump hadn’t made moves, he hadn’t chosen to speak with North Korea at that point, so I don’t think it was quite as near to oblivion as I was predicting.”
After all, the apocalypse has to hold off at least long enough for the world to recognise the brilliance of The Slow Reader’s Club. They’re setting sights on shows in the US, Europe and China. “This album continues and builds on what we’ve done before. Lots of people will find it surprising, hopefully, in a good way. Fingers crossed we’ll take it global.”
From Manchester Arena to the four corners of the world, bearing a towering vision. The Slow Readers Club are becoming a real page-turner.